Tag Archives: Domelights

Freedom of Speech

Does the U.S. Constitution protect your right to say anything you want, whenever you want, anywhere you want? Some people think that it indeed does, or that if it doesn’t allow that, it should.

Most understand that while we are free to speak our minds most times, there are limits. You can’t just yell “fire” in a crowded movie house, to use an old example.

There is actually no universally accepted definition of ‘Freedom of Speech’ that is applied within the United States of America. The idea is not clearly defined even within the Constitution itself. Issues relating to free speech have been debated and the courts have ruled on these issues almost since the Bill of Rights was added.

That ‘Bill of Rights’, for those who may require a brief civics lesson, are the first ten ‘amendments’ to the originally approved U.S. Constitution.

The very first amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As explained in “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution“:

The Founding generation undoubtedly believed deeply in the freedom of speech and of the press, but then, as now, these general terms were understood quite differently by different people. Many people did not think about their precise meanings until a concrete controversy arose, and when a controversy did arise, the analysis was often influenced by people’s political interests as much as by their honest constitutional understanding.”

Heritage also goes on to explain fully that there are certain established ‘rules’ and ‘exceptions’ where free speech is concerned which have developed largely over the past century.

Free speech guarantees restrict only government actions against such, not those of private employers, churches, universities, private home or property holders, and others. You can’t put a sign up in your office cafeteria calling the boss an idiot, get fired over it, and claim some alleged free speech protection of your job.

In placing restrictions on government actions limiting free speech, that protection extends not only against federal government, but also to state and local governments, and all branches of the same. These protections are extended not only to traditional speakers and writers, to formal newspaper columnists for instance, but also to regular individuals as they communicate messages through such mediums as the Internet.

The issue has come to light recently with an incident generally involving members of my own Philadelphia Police Department. A police sergeant created a website on his own time, which he operated on his own time, popularly known as “Domelights” by it’s users.

The site was set up to provide vital information to officers as well as to allow communication and expression for those officers. To that expressive/communicative end, the site provided message boards covering a variety of topics.

One of the most popular of these message boards was named ‘Philly Blue’, intended to be populated by police officers commenting on issues involving law enforcement in general and the PPD in particular.

I posted on Domelights as a regular for years, though ultimately much less frequently, using ‘The Big Irish’ as my screen name identity. Despite this anonymous name, everyone knew who I was. I never hid it, frequently advertised it, and made my identity available on the site’s biographical information records for any member to view.

Problems always existed on Domelights due to the anonymous status of the vast majority of posters, many of whom took ‘pot shots’ at the department in general, it’s policies and programs, and at times even at specific individual officers, supervisors, and managers.

The site has currently been shut down, temporarily restricted from accessibility due to a court proceeding. The site and it’s owner found itself in court proceedings when a law suit was filed by the Guardian Civic League, an organization representing black police officers, alleging racism and other activities that it deemed libelous and possibly illegal coming from the message board posters.

I personally believe that this charge is frivolous. There were undoubtedly some posters at Domelights who were racists, just as they exist in society. And there was definitely a major flaw in the Domelights system with the anonymous status of the posters encouraging some folks to say anything inflammatory or irresponsible. But again, these are my personal opinions.

The problems at Domelights led to my own decreased visits and participation, but I would vehemently disagree that the site, it’s owner, or it’s board participants are institutionally racist or encourage illegal actions.

It is what it is, a loosly monitored anonymous message board directed towards a specific target audience that make up the vast majority of its viewers and posters. Those suing Domelights simply don’t like what is being said there at times.

Many have a hard time accepting that free speech guarantees extend to conduct that is “conventionally understood as expressive“, according to Heritage. This includes things like wearing an armband, carrying a flag, and even burning of a flag extending into expressions of good and evil, with no exceptions even for things like radical Islam, Nazism, or so-called ‘hate speech’ expression.

To quote the Heritage writers, “Under the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea.”

There are, however, universally accepted and court decision-backed exceptions to free speech. You may not speak to incitement, meaning your speech cannot be likely to cause people to engage in imminent unlawful conduct. You cannot give a street corner speech rabidly inciting folks to turn over cars, shoot police officers, and burn down buildings.

You cannot make false statements of fact that are ‘knowing lies’, though some such instances have been protected while some even ‘innocent mistakes’ have been punished by the courts. You cannot make statements that are reasonably perceived as threats of violence, and you cannot use ‘fighting words’ addressing individuals in face-to-face situations. “I’m gonna blow your head off” or “I’m gonna kick your ass” or “Your wife is a dirty ho” are examples that could be punishable by law.

You cannot participate in expression through obscenity or child pornography. The obscenity standard has been particularly strongly debated. Hard-core pornography is indeed punishable under certain guidelines, but those guidelines remain hotly debated and seem to constantly shift in practice.

As for child pornography, courts only restrict the actual use of a child, not the presentation of a person as a child. So using a younger looking 18-year old girl in a movie that presents her as a 12-year old, one in which she has sexual relations, does not violate child pornography laws.

There are restrictions relating to the use of owned property, so-called ‘intellectual property’ laws for things like copyrighted information in music lyrics and formally published books and periodicals. However, these restrictions do not extend generally to things like facts and ideas. No one can legally monopolize an idea as their own.

There are restrictions on ‘commercial advertising’ which address things such as businesses having to make ‘disclaimers’ (“this pill may result in seizures and even death in some cases – check with your doctor before using”), but this does not extend to political advertising, meaning basically that politicians can exaggerate or mislead, but business cannot. It is directed towards speech that “proposes a commercial transaction“, protecting the consumer. Shame that we don’t rate voters as highly as product consumers where advertising protection is concerned.

We need to mind that all free speech protections extend to us as citizens from the government “acting as sovereign” but do not extend necessarily to that same government acting as an employer, educator, property owner, or regulator of the television and radio airwaves. The rules for these types of situations are so numerous that Heritage equates them to trying to understand the tax code.

The bottom line is that when speaking, be it in a public forum or in private conversation; whether on a street corner, a stage, or in an Internet chat room or message board; whether addressing a political or social or personal issue; in any event under any circumstances to any audience, it is always recommended to know your audience and know what you are talking about, and use a measure of common sense, respect, and even discretion in what you communicate.

Our Founding Fathers did indeed incorporate the idea of freedom of speech into the First Amendment of the Constitution, and not just they but all following generations of Americans have understood this idea as a basic right. What has been and likely always will be less ‘basic’ is the interpretation of restrictions and exceptions to speaking your mind freely.

Defense Against Anonymous Cowards

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I have some reservation about writing this article because it addresses specifically a topic that I have begun to feel strongly about in recent months.

The topic would be that of anonymous postings on the internet, their dangers, and their repercussions. It is my opinion that anonymous internet identities and postings are some of the most dangerous things on the web today.

For a few years, I was actively involved with an internet message board. For the great unwashed who have never had the pleasure, or experienced the pain, a message board is basically an online community of posters, usually interested in some particular topic, who post ideas, opinions, news, commentary, and more based on that area of interest.

Within this general area of interest, posters would both introduce specific topics to be discussed, or would participate in the ongoing discussions of topics already begun by others.

For instance, the board that I was involved with fell within the domain of law enforcement generally, the Philadelphia Police Department specifically. There could be ongoing topics at any particular time involving tactical considerations, particular newsworthy jobs, departmental personalities, etc.

Though I posted under the pseudonym of “The Big Irish”, anyone who cared to know my true identity could know it. I made it available on my publicly accessible profile at the host website, and I frequently alluded to my real name and work assignments, as did many of the regular posters on the board. Everyone knew who I was, if they cared to know.

Over the course of the years that I was involved, the vast majority of my fellow posters chose to remain anonymous. I am quite sure that they had many reasons for this.

From talking to many of them in person (the vast majority would still not reveal their own pseudonym) the most frequently mentioned reasoning was that they wanted to comment without fear of retaliation from city or police administration should they choose to be critical of ongoing police procedures or personnel. That is entirely understandable.

For years I stayed with the website, though at times some of the postings became personal and vitriolic attacks against fellow officers or commanders. There are folks assigned to “moderate” the discussions, and for the most part they did an outstanding job playing referee.

But there were many times when posters took advantage of their anonymity to sling outrageous accusations, or make comments about individuals on a message board that they would never make to that persons face.

Because I chose to post with my identity publicly available, I would at times suffer the attacks of those less courageous. That is my position: don’t say something to or about someone else that you wouldn’t be willing to say to their face. And if you have good, intelligent, legitimate opinions to offer on a topic, be willing to put your name to same.

When these occasional attacks would occur, I would invite the offended to approach me publicly, telephone me, email me privately. Anything they wanted, as long as they would divulge their identity to me. It never happened.

When someone attacks you publicly, and then doesn’t even have the courage of their convictions to discuss matters directly with you, there is only one word for it: coward. There is no other way to slice it.

My decision to finally leave this message board community, something that I had considered for some time and had even attempted a couple of times previously, was cemented after reading an October article by Dennis Prager.

In the article, Prager compared anonymity on the web to pornography, and stated that in anonymity, there is something “at least as awful – and arguably more destructive – that permeates the internet: the lies, vitriol, obscenities and ad hominem attacks made by anonymous individuals on almost every website that deals with public issues.

Prager goes on to comment: “Some might argue that anonymity enables people more freely to express their thoughts. But this is not true. Anonymity only enables people to more freely express their feelings. Anonymity values feelings over thought, and immediate expression over thoughtful reflection.

He finishes his piece stating the following:

“The irresponsible, the angry, the obscene, the dumb have virtually taken over many internet dialogues. But there is an easy fix, and websites owe it to society to fix it. Just ban anonymous postings.”

I wholeheartedly agree, and thus decided to end my longtime public affiliation with this website, one in which I was a frequent and active participant.

Now, as a parting gesture to those at that site who now follow the articles at my own site, and the postings at my blog, I will give you one little going away present with thanks to a few folks who tipped me off.

It appears that the timing of my leaving active participation with the Domelights website coincided with a career transfer, and may have been fodder at said site. Someone has apparently chose to accuse me of “do as I say, not as I do” behavior.

First, the career transfer that came through moved me from a street assignment into one where I will be participating in the instruction of officers. Teaching is something that was a lifelong desire of mine, and so a year ago I put in a transfer to this unit. It finally came through, with virtually no warning mind you. I hope to develop the experience and skills here that will enable me to serve officers in this way into the future.

The training and ongoing development of police officers is something that I personally and professionally feel is extremely vital, that certainly someone has to do, and I am honored that someone thought enough of my strengths and abilities to give me the opportunity to help in this area.

In my previous assignment, I had been working in a good position, in a good location, with good people. But you have to take advantage of opportunities when they come along in your life and career. So here I am, and I hope to do well.

I have commented before on that site that the backbone of police work is street patrol and investigations, and that good officers and supervisors are needed there. I continue to strongly support that concept, and encourage all good officers to seek supervisory positions, and all good supervisors to seek further management positions.

I also have commented frequently that I believe there are too many “alphabet soup” units created for political expediency, and that they withhold good, necessary officers and supervisors from that more directed street patrol. I continue to stand by that position as well.

My reading of and reflection on that Dennis Prager article “Internet Anonymity is as Destructive as Internet Porn” in late October was the impetus to finally leave Domelights, not any cowardice over ducking the ramifications of my own transfer two weeks later out of street patrol and into a training unit.

Ducking anyone? I remain a public figure, with my own website and blog. My identity and email are public. Anyone who wants to get in touch with me and discuss any matter, mano-a-mano, is no less able to do so.

The reply here at the end of this piece highlights the problem. Friends tip me off that yet another handful of further anonymous posters have slung their arrows at me, and I feel bound to reply or risk being deemed a coward myself.

That is what anonymity does, it allows the true cowards to hide while forcing the courageous into defending themselves, and it is a game that I will no longer play.

I leave anyone who cares to have read this far with these final thoughts. If you have some idea to share, have the faith in yourself to put your name to it. If you have a criticism to make of someone else, be willing to make it to their face.

If you feel burdened by a need to discuss something with someone, pick up the phone or write an email with your name on it. Have the courage to stand up and be counted, not cower in the corner of anonymity.

Oh, and I have never been one to feel that I have a big ego. Heck, just take a look at me. Few people are more average, and I know it fully.

But to anyone who feels that I am important enough to comment about, who follows my words and actions, my life and career, with such an interest, I can only say thank you. After all, every one of us has some measure of ego, and such interest certainly massages mine.

Call it ego if you like, but I will continue to discuss and comment on issues that I feel are important to law enforcement officers and the public at large on my website and blog. I do it because I simply enjoy it, with no expectation that anyone will ever read a word of it.

One thing I can absolutely guarantee is that if I am writing it on my site, my name will be all over it, and you will be able to easily contact me with your own comments.

To hell with the cowardice of anonymity, and any further defending against it.

Team Eddis as Mike Tyson: FOP or Bust-er

There is a fight brewing within the ranks of Philadelphia’s police officers, one that likely will be battled across the state and around the country. For the first time in over a decade, we have “union” trouble, and as with previous bouts of this type, the likelihood is that the bout will end in a knockout.

The Executive Board of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, representing thousands of Philadelphia police officers and retirees, has suddenly found itself in an unusual position, back on it’s heals and being used as a punching bag, ala Mike Tyson in his famous 1990 bout with Buster Douglas.

In that bout, fought in Tokyo, Japan on February 10th, 1990, the previously unbeaten and seemingly invincible Tyson, a boxing machine, a man seemingly born and bred to be the heavyweight champion of the world, an animistic monster, came in typically disrespectful of his opponent, the journeyman Douglas, but also uncharacteristically out of shape.

Coming into the bout, Tyson was 37-0 with 33 knockouts and 9 successful defenses of his heavyweight crown. He dispatched many of his opponents so quickly, that fans were becoming almost disinterested in his fights, one of the reasons for the move overseas.

Tyson went down that night, a victim of his own largess, and of making the classic mistake of underestimating his opponent.

The still unbeaten, and previously untouched, regime of President Bob Eddis, handpicked successor to the lodge’s longtime bombastic leader Rich Costello, is used to feeding on lesser opponents, such as the game but outmatched lightweight Donnell “Homicide” Hobbs.

Hobbs, a scrappy little fighter, has jabbed and jabbed at Team Eddis over the years, but has been unable to come anywhere close to landing a glove on them, and has been knocked to the canvas like one of Tyson’s late-80’s opponents.

But in this bout, Team Eddis’ (referred to hereafter as ‘TE’) punches are uncharacteristically weak, and they suddenly find themselves in the ring against a bigger, stronger opponent. Not only that, but the opponent has motivation, and is fighting hard. And now, the fans in the peanut gallery who once marveled in awe at their strength and skill, are turning on them with boos and jeers, and rooting on the opponent.

TE came out looking solid in the early action, but suddenly took a devastating blow when former National FOP Vice-President Ken Rocks was knocked out of the ring in his early August bid for re-election. TE fought back, reportedly counter-punching with behind-the-scenes threats to the National Lodgers. But once the involved fans, in this case the membership of Lodge #5, began to grasp what was happening in the ring, they quickly turned on TE.

Stunned and reeling, TE attempted to answer with a letter to membership spelling out their proposal to renounce our longtime fraternal affiliation with the State and National Lodges of the F.O.P. But the letter only yielded more questions, as did meetings with membership at the union hall.

Some from TE even began to attack their own members, blasting a popular, controversial and widely-read website, “Domelights”, for its posters largely negative response to TE’s plans.

The National Lodge then began to go on the offensive with an effective brochure titled “Why Now?” sent out to all Philly FOP members from National President Chuck Canterbury. The brochure spelled out the value of FOP membership, and questioned the reasoning and motivations behind TE’s suddenly anti-FOP strategy.

TE now finds itself on the ropes. It has paid out millions of dollars over the years in dues to the FOP in order to remain fully involved with the National and State lodges.

By its own reporting, approximately $400,000 per year was paid. With the current team and its immediate predecessors in charge for over a decade now, that equates to approximately $4 million of our hard-earned dollars.

Yet TE now says that this money is wasted, that it is not necessary. In their own August 2005 letter to membership, President Bob Eddis asks “What do we get through our affiliation with the State and National FOP Lodges?” Eddis then supplies the answer: “A yearly bill of over $400,000.00.

Eddis and TE thus have put themselves in a very bad position, as did Tyson when he chose to go into that now-legendary bout out of shape, with a bad game plan, and underestimating his opponent.

TE is either outright lying to membership, and there actually is value to our FOP membership, and we do get more than just a bill each year, or they have knowingly wasted millions of our dollars over the years.

When I first became a police officer in 1990, I was assigned to the 6th police district. At the same exact time, a Sergeant from the 6th by the name of John Shaw was running for FOP Lodge #5 President, and many on his team also had ties to our 6th district, which was nicknamed as “Hollywood”.

As a young, impressionable rookie with no real knowledge of the players, I went along with the overwhelming sentiment of my co-workers, and voted for Shaw. So did a lot of other folks, obviously, as he won the election, and then won re-election two years later. We all know what eventually happened.

Well, I am no longer a rookie. As the saying goes “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I have voted for TE, but I will not blindly follow anyone, any regime, especially one that attempts to insult my intelligence.

TE is either lying to us, and there is personal animus and/or a political power play at the root of this fight, or they have knowingly wasted millions of dollars. Either way, they have shown that they are no longer deserving of our trust.

It is my personal opinion that the membership of Philadelphia Lodge #5 of the Fraternal Order of Police should remain fully fraternal with the National and State Lodges.

As former VP Kenny Rocks himself said as recently as months ago, before losing the recent election: “No matter what the problem, members must know that if they call, the FOP will be there to help. NO MATTER WHAT!” and “Don’t go outside the FOP – change from within”.

In the 10th round of that legendary February 10th, 1990 bout in Tokyo, Japan, Buster Douglas floored the formerly invincible Mike Tyson with a flurry of blows, knocking out the former champion in one of the most stunning moments in boxing history.

But it was just as much Tyson beating himself on that night, as it is now Team Eddis contributing to its own KO.